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ISS Reflections

March 2018

Looking Back to the Future

Rob Ambrogi, ISS Vice President

As I approach full-time retirement this July, I can’t help but examine and reflect upon my 47 years as an educator with both retrospective and prospective lenses.

I entered Teacher Corps in 1971 in Lackawanna, New York as a HS science intern, teaching chemistry and photography. We studied how to develop and implement mastery-based units of instruction with tightly crafted behavioral objectives that included cognitive, affective and psychomotor elements in each lesson. Over the years, I have seen this ‘best practice’ of its time be replaced by outcomes-based instruction, standards-based curriculum, social emotional learning targets, project-based learning, backwards-designed curriculum, and so on. It seems that educators are always looking for the next best thing. Rather than succumbing to a jaundiced, cynical point of view on this endless, sometimes cyclical quest, I tend to see each of these initiatives as a step in a long, sincerely motivated journey toward discovering better ways to enhance and facilitate the learning of future generations -- as noble a journey as any I can imagine. I smile a bit in interviews as I listen to candidates, both new and experienced, as they seek to convince me that they know the best way to be a teacher. Looking back, I’ve come to believe that great teaching is perhaps most effectively framed as a journey of discovery and an ongoing exercise in prototyping and self-correction.

Speaking of prototyping, two of my sons develop video games and it is fascinating to hear them talk about how they beta test elements of their games. They bring in testers and just observe, often in silence, how each tester engages and processes the game – focusing on user interface; where they succeed, where they stumble or get stuck, or where it is too easy; noticing at which point they lose interest or become frustrated; and recording carefully what elements of the game hold their interest and serve to bring them enthusiastically back to play again. I can’t help but see parallels with master teachers who approach their work with such a lens. Not that learning is just a video game, but rather the human brain and the motivational triggers that are in play in any learning situation are hard wired to respond positively to proximal challenges, immediate feedback, meaningful appreciation of success and a sense of control and choice as the task unfolds. As an international educator, I once thought, almost sadly, that our boys had rejected “the family business.” Now I’m not so sure.

Looking forward in a broader, more global reflection on our world of international education, it is clear to me that organizations like ISS that have a mission to ‘make a world of difference’ will need to realign their focus beyond community-based, highly subsidized, expensive schools that I, and many of my peers, might have haughtily viewed as ‘real international schools.’ We should turn our attention and adjust our level of support to the schools that are springing up all over the world to serve primarily local students who aspire to an internationally credible education.

Such schools in many parts of the world have often been branded in a negative context as ‘proprietary’ and somehow unworthy of recognition and support. Years ago, I attended many meetings at regional conferences and with accrediting agencies trying to somehow distinguish such schools from the ‘real international schools.’ At recruiting events I have heard candidates cautiously explaining to new colleagues how it is best to avoid working in such schools. While anecdotes and stories of bad actors exist for some schools of this type, I can’t help but recall stories from community-based schools where an off-track school board or director might have made decisions that had as negative an impact as the ones imbedded in the cautionary tales above.

I believe that it is a worthy shift of focus to help make educational experiences for students in such schools as positive as possible. As some may know, at ISS we not only serve as a recruiting and international career development organization, or as a procurement service or a foundation management service. We also integrate all our departments to provide turnkey start-up and ongoing school management services.

It is clear to me that the future of this arm of our organization will depend on the development of school start-up and business models that acknowledge lower tuition price points, larger class sizes, lower salary and benefit packages, a greater number of locally sourced teachers with necessary professional development, and a higher rate of expat teacher turnover. I am convinced that careful management of these realities will produce very credible and valuable learning opportunities that will be sustainable and will serve students well. There is nothing in our mission that says we only serve young people in highly subsidized, expensive international schools. We need to change the negative narrative about these newly emerging schools and continue to find ways to directly and indirectly extend enthusiastic support to them.

Coming back to a more personal reflection, what will I do going forward? Many of the usual things, I suspect: grandparenthood; supporting an aging mother; pursuing some new things (blues harmonica, left-handed guitar), some old things (photography, underhanded games), and some volunteer work. I have found a local educational organization for ‘liberated, self-directed learners’ where I presently serve on its board and again teach photography and chemistry. I suppose I will also need to work hard at retaining my network of friends and generating new ones who are outside the world of international education.

So, looking back to see the future, I am smiling and have a strong sense that the world of international education will continue to turn nicely on its axis and move smoothly around the sun – as will my little world.

As they say in Cameroonian Pidgin English as people age and things mature, “Day dey go, Kwacha dey strong.” Or “As the day goes on, the corn beer gets stronger.”

Be well.


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